The Big West Conference baseball season begins in less than two weeks, and Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee is pleased with the direction the Mustangs are heading.
After securing its first series victory of the 2017 season by taking two of three games against Missouri Valley Conference opponent Wichita State, Cal Poly seems to have put some early-season struggles in the rearview mirror.
While Sunday’s 2-0 loss in the series finale — the sixth time the Mustangs have been shut out this season — dropped Cal Poly’s record to 7-12, there was still reason for measured optimism.
“Overall, we played much better over the last week,” Lee said Sunday afternoon, noting the Mustangs could have pulled within three games of a .500 record after being nine games back 10 days ago.
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Here are three things we learned about Cal Poly this weekend:
1. Erich Uelmen and Spencer Howard will give the Mustangs a chance to win every Big West series this season.
Uelmen has pitched at a high level all spring, and Friday night against the Shockers, the junior right-hander finally received some run support. He matched his career high with 10 strikeouts and walked only one batter in seven complete innings.
Not to be outdone, Howard delivered a career-high 11 strikeouts against one walk in Saturday’s shutout victory. The Templeton High School graduate has cemented his status as the team’s No. 2 starter now that junior Jarred Zill is done for the season following Tommy John surgery.
“Pitching-wise, over the course of the week we were great,” Lee said.
In 31 total innings against Wichita State, Cal Poly’s pitching staff recorded 40 strikeouts and three walks.
2. Colby Barrick has made the most of his recent opportunity for more playing time.
The junior transfer from Allan Hancock College spent the first month of the season as a reserve outfielder, and was inserted into the starting lineup last week against Loyola Marymount.
Barrick has hit safely in six straight games and tallied at least two hits in every contest against the Shockers, including a two-run double in Friday’s 13-inning victory.
“He probably wasn’t quite ready early in the season, but watching and working over the course of the first three weeks, he got his opportunity and made the most of it,” Lee said. “He’s part of that lineup now. His job is pretty secure.”
Barrick said he’s trying to keep a simple mental approach offensively, particularly against offspeed pitches, to do his part in helping the Mustangs get back to .500.
“The past couple weeks I’ve really been working on staying back on my back foot and driving those offspeed pitches the other way,” Barrick said. “It seems to be working.”
3. Sophomore reliever Michael Clark has taken on a larger role this season.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Clark pitched at least one inning in all three games against Wichita State and allowed one hit with five strikeouts.
Clark has already made a team-high 11 appearances in 19 games this season and is 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA. He and junior lefty Trent Shelton have emerged as Lee’s go-to relievers, with senior Slater Lee a proven commodity for lengthy middle relief when called upon.
Cal Poly’s staff will need to be near full strength for a four-game series against Nebraska. Uelmen and Howard are expected to start Thursday and Friday — both 6 p.m. starts — with sophomore Bobby Ay potentially returning from a minor injury to start one of the games during a 1 p.m. Saturday doubleheader.
“Come Thursday,” Barrick said, “I think all of us are going to be ready to play and ready to win another series at home.”